The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies is a chance to reflect on the relief brought to the citizens of Europe by the end of World War II – and the scars that stayed with them, Roberto Rabel writes
The deadliest war in European history ended 75 years ago on 8 May 1945. For me, it’s an anniversary that brings home the intertwined personal and universal dimensions of what “Victory in Europe” meant.
My father died on the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995. My mother passed away twenty years later to the day. Like their deaths, there was a symmetry to their lives—and it all went back to the war that convulsed Europe from 1939 to 1945.
Living in Poland and Italy respectively when war broke out, my father and mother were amongst millions of Europeans whose life courses were permanently disrupted or prematurely ended. They were fortunate to be among those still alive in May 1945, remarkably so in my father’s case as he fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, during which the Nazis killed at least 160,000 Poles (mostly civilians).
VE Day should have brought relief after the privations of war, and it unquestionably did for much of Europe. But my parents were exemplary of those for whom the end of war brought an unsettled peace.
The ethnic, nationalistic and ideological divisions that had inflicted death and misery across Europe did not evaporate on May 8, 1945. Nor did the Realpolitik calculus of competing state interests that were complicated by a looming Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers.
Divisions transcended, fault lines hardened
Some of Europe’s divisions were transcended remarkably swiftly in the post-war era, as embodied in the first steps towards the imperfect but inspirational project now known as the European Union. But other fault lines persisted and hardened, sometimes in new forms.
My parents were amongst tens of millions displaced by the post-war redefinition of those fault lines, as epitomised in Winston Churchill’s 1946 observation that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent”.
The way the war ended in Central Europe obliged my father to leave Warsaw—and a wife and two infant children—on pain of death at the hands of Poland’s new Stalinist overlords. The way the war ended along the disputed Italo-Yugoslav border obliged my mother and her family to live for years in a converted grain silo in Trieste as part of the “Esodo” of some 200,000 Italian-speaking people from the Istrian Peninsula in the late 1940s. Both my parents eventually came as displaced persons to New Zealand, where their parallel, war-driven lives converged.
Despite its mixed legacies, VE Day remains a date to celebrate. It was vital for the world to defeat Nazi tyranny, even if a crucial ally in that cause, Stalin’s Soviet Union, then imposed another totalitarianism over Central and Eastern Europe for over four decades. That darker postscript of VE Day needs to be remembered too, but it does not detract from the monumental importance of ending the bloodbath that was World War II in Europe.
As a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw, I am currently living in an apartment almost certainly located over the very sewers through which my father guided fighters from the Old Town in their ultimately suicidal uprising against the Nazis in 1944. Here, memories of war and its mixed legacies lie heavy on the national consciousness. Old wounds are even being reopened.
Polish leaders have recently engaged in a war of words with Moscow over Vladimir Putin’s cynical efforts to rewrite the tawdry history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that allowed the Red Army to join Adolf Hitler’s legions in carving up Poland from 1939 to 1941 before the two dictators turned on each other.
For Poland, VE Day in 1945 left scars and suppressed secrets that lasted for years. Amongst the most ignominious was the concealment (with the prolonged complicity of the Western Allies) of the murder at Stalin’s orders of 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in 1940 at Katyn and other locations. Memorials to victims of the Katyn massacre and the Warsaw Uprising stand 500 metres in opposite directions from my apartment.
Like VE Day’s mixed legacies, the impacts of war and dislocation haunted my parents. Both were perpetually uneasy outsiders in their country of exile, remembering their homelands through perspectives frozen from the pre-war era.
My father recalled youthful summer swims in the Vistula and obsessed about the medal he was sure he had earned during the Warsaw Uprising (which finally arrived 50 years later, and a week after his death). My mother wrote nostalgic poetry in Italian about the iconic Roman amphitheatre in her native Pola (now Pula in Croatia), where she had attended opera performances as a young woman. Both harboured secrets only partially uncovered to this day.
But for all the costs that followed VE Day for them, it also meant the war was over and that they had lived. Despite its difficult aftermath, they went on to balance painful memories and losses against the security and joys that flowed from their new lives as they forged new families in a new country.
My parents’ stories speak to the wider social, cultural and personal meanings of VE Day. Its myriad legacies reshaped a continent and continue to reverberate through millions of family histories. Especially on its 75th anniversary, VE Day remains a day to remember.
Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Warsaw.